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Make hard days hard and easy days easy

Master trail runners often slip into a rut—they run the same trail at the same pace. …

Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell

Master trail runners often slip into a rut—they run the same trail at the same pace. Over and over. Almost every master I have worked with does easy runs too hard and hard runs too easy. Variation in your training pays big dividends.

You may have heard of the hard-day, easy-day training method developed by Bill Bowerman, the famous coach at Oregon State University, and his assistant coach Bill Delinger. It was, simply, train hard one day, really taxing the body, and then take it easy for one or several days to recover. Masters often say that hard days are their key workouts each week. But the easy days allow you to rebuild strength and prepare for the hard days.

I extend the hard-easy concept to weeks and training phases throughout the year. For example, if you are training for a 25-mile trail race, do longer and more intense runs one week (which might include a 20-mile run) and the next week fewer miles and less intensity.

Also, split training into yearly phases. After the holiday pounds have been added, start training with base building. Your base (total weekly mileage including the long run) will be determined by the length of the trail runs and races you intend to do. The base building phase should all be done at an easy pace, with the goal to simply spend time on your feet.

How Do You Measure Hard?

A hard workout should really stretch you, whether it be speed work, a long trail run, intervals, a tempo run, fartleks, on a treadmill or a hilly trail run. There are several ways to measure the intensity of your workout. If you are just starting a hard-easy program, use perceived level of exertion or the talk test to determine hard. A more precise method is to monitor your mile pace or heart rate.

Perceived Level of Exertion and the Talk Test. Although all runs may initially feel like a monumental effort, eventually you will be able to monitor your perceived level of exertion. Most runners’ hard pace and hard perceived level of exertion are in sync. The scales run from 1 (this is so easy) to 10 (you have got to be kidding). Level 5 is comfortable; 6 is getting harder. Strive for 7 for all hard efforts.

The Talk Test means that if you cannot talk to your training partner, you are at a hard effort, at least into the Level 6 to 7 range.

Your Mile Pace (MP). A recent hard effort gives you a mile pace; for most folks, I recommend using a five- to 10-mile race or run. Say you ran 35 minutes in a five-mile race. Your MP is seven minutes per mile. At shorter distances (one to five miles) hard should be MP plus 20 seconds; for five to 10 miles, MP plus 30 seconds; over 10 miles, MP plus 40 seconds; intervals (400-meter, 800-meter, etc), MP pace minus 10 seconds. For longer training runs, add 20 to 30 seconds to your MP. If you are running one of your usual courses, keep track of the time or use a GPS to monitor your pace.

Heart Rate (HR). If you use a HR monitor, hard is between 75 and 90 percent of max HR.



Mile Pace

Distance Hard Easy
1 to 5 miles MP + 20 sec MP + 60 sec
6 to 10 miles MP + 30 sec MP + 60 sec
Over 10 miles MP + 40 sec Too long for easy

Mile Pace (MP) is based on a recent had five-mile run or race.

Talk Test vs. Perceived Exertion vs. Heart Rate

Can’t Talk/Hard Constantly Babbling/Easy
Perceived Exertion Level (out of 10) 7 to 8 5
Heart Rate 75-80% of max 50-60% of max

Tempo Run

Short (1 to 3 miles) MP (see above)
Medium (3 to 6 miles) MP + 20 sec

Easy Made Easy

Think of easy as active rest. Do not skip workouts. Easy days are extremely important to improvement.

Olympic distance runner Ryan Hall, who blazed the 2011 Boston Marathon to set a new American marathon record, touts the value of hard-easy on his website: “When my pride finally gave way to frustration and I was forced to take my easy days seriously, I gradually began to improve. Learn to pay attention to your body.”

Easy means doing runs under 90 minutes with 60 to 70 seconds added to MP. I can hear the groans. It happens every time I give a talk on this subject. You still get to record the miles in your log book! A perceived level of exertion of 5 is easy, i.e. a very comfortable pace that you feel you could run forever. You should be able to endlessly babble to your training partner. Easy is keeping your HR under 65 percent of your max.

Cross Training and Rest

Some runners refuse to do easy runs since they believe their hard-earned conditioning will be lost. But they will do cross training, which provides rest from running workouts. Replace one or two easy runs per week with a sport or activity you like. Perhaps the most complementary option is to train for walking-power hiking, which is a common tactic in long, steep trail runs and races. Other options include swimming, bicycling, yoga and weight lifting. If you normally run for an hour, work up to an hour of cross training at a comfortable intensity.

Because trail running can be more physically demanding than road running, masters trail runners often need more rest days than they think. The number of rest days is individual but consider your age, mileage and training intensity. A rule of thumb: from 40 to 50, at least one rest day per week may suffice; from 50 to 60, consider two rest days; and 60 and over, try at least three rest days.

Masters can train as effectively as they did when they were young and improve their running by using the hard-easy-days method. Make your hard days hard—relative to your MP, your HR, perceived level of exertion or talk test. Make your easy days easy. Vary your weekly workouts and every three to six weeks take an entire easy week. Experiment to see what works for you.

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